“Again?” Zurie asks.
Sitting in her study, she was in the middle of reading a report from a distant land when Fane came with more news regarding a certain organization that has been causing them trouble.
“Yeah,” Fane answers. “So much for only being around fifty in members. Last week we found out they were a hundred. Now they’re two hundred.”
“And these are members just being discovered, not new recruits within that timeframe, yes?”
“We believe so.”
“How were they missed originally?”
“They must be aware of our tactics. They know that they can’t lie to us, so they’re giving the lower ranks false information in case they get caught. Probably nobody other than the boss knows their full reach.”
“Then we must spare him when we reach that point. Those willing to follow him in the first place will not ever be able to integrate with the culture that we have built.”
“We’ll keep him alive until we find out every last member of his organization.”
Zurie leans back in her chair, sighs, and stares up at the ceiling.
“I regret giving him this opportunity. I should have listened to you when you told me to kill him,” she says.
“Well, as much as I’d like to say ‘I told you so,’ I can’t bring myself to do that. You didn’t want to kill a kid. There’s no shame in that. It’s not like you could tell how he was going to turn out,” Fane says.
“Perhaps I should have done more. We could have personally watched over his upbringing and education to ensure that he would not turn out this way, but—”
“Sorry to interrupt, but I doubt that would have mattered. The kid was the governor’s bastard. He had his blood in him. We know better than anybody else how powerful blood is. Even if he was raised right, overcoming that sort of heritage is damn near impossible.”
“You overcame the sins of your father, have you not, Fane?”
“Yeah, but I’m special,” Fane answers with a wink. “But more seriously… don’t you remember how much of a brat I was for the first eighty years? I despised you. How many times did I try to kill you again?”
“Come on, it was at least twenty.”
“No. Zero. For that to be even one, it would imply that you ever tried to do me real harm. Not once did you try to ‘kill’ me using methods that you knew could work.”
“How was I supposed to know that cutting your head off wasn’t going to work the first time I tried? I seriously was trying to kill you.”
“Well, I suppose that I will forgive you for ruining my favorite dress at the time.”
“I remember you made me try to wash the blood out. I scrubbed, and scrubbed, and scrubbed… but it just wouldn’t come out.”
The two share a moment of laughter.
“That was the final straw,” Zurie says. “Seeing how impossible it was to scrub the blood out of that – I have never worn white since then.”
“Sorry, that’s my fault. You look beautiful in white, too.”
“I know. Alas, white is not a friendly color to those of us who live off of blood.”
“Not even magic could clean the dress.”
“Right. We did try that, did we not? I do believe that the one who tried was shocked that his magic did not work.”
“And then we had to hurry up and get out of there before he got suspicious. At least we learned that vampire blood is immune to magic.”
“Oh, how I wish it were not. I could wear white again without fear of ruining it.”
“Hah. But now that I’ve brought up that time… I’m thinking about the old days again. Remember when we found my counts?”
“Do you mean when we found the two girls who could finally keep you in line?”
“Fearless and annoying. If you’re like a mother to me, then they’re my grandmothers. My very strict grandmothers.”
“I do not know how they would feel about being called grandmothers.”
“Oh, I know. They’d be furious and want to cut my legs off. Again.”
“You cannot escape their lecturing without your legs, after all. Truly, though, you should not call the women you often share a bed with your grandmothers.”
“Should you be the one telling me that? Let’s not forget that hound of yours. He’s, you know, a dog and all that. Even when he’s transformed, he’s—”
“He has the spirit of a mature man in him. That is all that matters. Besides, do you remember what he looked like before? Him being attractive was such a pleasant bonus.”
“You think I could forget how he looked with all the following you made me do? And of course he was your type. You always have liked the older-looking men… though it’s kind of funny to think about considering that you’re several lifetimes older than him.”
“I would not be nearly as attracted to him if I did not know how he used to look. You should grow yourself some facial hair.”
“My counts don’t let me have a single bit of hair on my face. They complain about me just having bangs sometimes. If it were up to them, I’d probably have to shave off all my hair. From everywhere.”
“Perhaps they are jealous of a man having such beautiful hair? I must admit that even I am jealous at times.”
“I don’t know how to feel about you saying you’re jealous of my hair.”
“Of course I am. Yours has much more character to it than mine. Especially that one strand on the top that likes to sprout like a flower and wave around.”
“You know, now that you’ve said that, I think that hair might be why my counts hate my hair so much. They’ve tried cutting it, plucking it out – they’ve tried everything. But no matter what they do… I always have a hair sticking up. It’s like it either regrows or passes on its mission to a different hair.”
“It is adorable. Not only that, but your hair is so… voluminous.”
“Why do you think I hate combing it so much?”
“That may be a good point, but it is not an excuse to not take care of yourself.”
“Yeah, yeah. Anyways, are we still set to deal with that group once the dog and the girls are out of the tower?”
“Assuming that nothing else changes, yes. We must simply come up with a strategy to deal with all of that silver of theirs.”
“Yeah. I could handle a hundred humans, but a hundred humans with silver weapons? I’d rather avoid that if I could. I don’t suppose our favorite ghoul could handle melting a hundred weapons at once.”
“You suppose correctly. While he likely could decay so many weapons at once, the process is drastically slower for every additional item decayed by his spell. There would be more than enough time for the humans to react. That is without even mentioning that silver takes far longer to be affected by magic.”
“Then it sounds like we’ve just got to get our butler in there before the battle begins. Have him start the process early.”
“We will need my hound for that.”
“Yeah. I might be a better tracker than him but seeing the places that he broke into and how back when I was following him – there’s nobody better for the job than him. We could always have him sneak some explosives into the armory instead of the butler. Or set the place on fire.”
“You should know better than that. Either of those options would remove all the subtly of dealing with this group. They need to be dealt with in private.”
“Or else the people would know that there are large groups out there conspiring against us.”
“Precisely. The more perfect and simple their way of life seems, the happier they will be. The group’s existence alone would cause us no insignificant amount of trouble if it was made public. The less conflict they know of, the less worries they will have, the easier they will be to manage.”
“On the contrary, what if we used it to bolster your image? Let them try their little rebellion only to crush it where everybody can see?”
“I do not wish for a battle that the innocent may be dragged into. Furthermore, the people of this city may be able to handle the knowledge that we kill and devour even petty criminals, but they also know just how few criminals there are. If we annihilate a large group of humans, that will seem excessive to the humans even if they deserve death more than the average, petty criminal.”
“That doesn’t really make sense to me.”
“They have no problem looking away or cheering if a single criminal is dealt with every other week. A public massacre of hundreds of humans would not be nearly as easy to ignore or cheer for. If you were a human ruled by those seen as unholy and cursed, even if you live a life far greater than without their rule, then there would still be doubt in the back of your mind. That doubt is impossible to exterminate entirely. It is a natural part of all of us – to fear the different, that is. Some may live their lives championing for equal treatment no matter how different others are, but it is a base instinct within all of us that is impossible to remove. The less reason we give to their doubts, whether those doubts are conscious or subconscious, the better.”
“In other words, even if we do something that should be seen as good, like publicly wiping out a minor rebellion, it will give the people more reason to believe that we’re bloodthirsty monsters who can’t be trusted?”
“Yes. There are some kingdoms that do not believe in execution for wrongdoers in any case. Instead, they would jail the criminals, feed them, have them do labor for the rest of their lives, and so on. If those governments were to suddenly begin executing their prisoners, the people would accuse those in charge of being murderers. The people of this city are not nearly as coddled, so they approve of our current practices, but any more than this would be pushing their limits.”
“I guess it’s the same as always then.”
“The alternative is his method. Rule by fear taken to the extreme. Simply hosting him here is going to cause significant concern among the people, so we must do as much as possible to build a goodwill and sustain it.”
“That bastard is going to undo a lot of our good just by visiting. Pisses me off.”
“Yes. Speaking of… I have also found out that my brother will—”
The mere mention of Zurie’s brother is enough to twist Fane’s expression into one of even more rage than when talking about the progenitor.
“I know, Fane. We both should have expected that he would be coming for the masquerade, but it was officially confirmed the other day. Both of those men will be in our city.”
“You shouldn’t even call him your brother. The fucking bastard doesn’t deserve to be called that after everything he’s done to you. Family doesn’t fucking – they don’t… we are family. You, me, Bo, our champions, barons, and counts – weare family. What that bastard did to you—”
“Remember the old days? Even when you hated me, you despised him even more. You behaved as if you were the only one allowed to hurt me. If anybody else so much as touched me inappropriately, you wished to tear their arms off and feed them to who they belonged.”
Fane sighs and says, “I’m sorry for being such a pain back then.”
“Apology accepted. For the fifty-third time.”
“Has it really been fifty-three times already?”
“Yes. You are very apologetic.”
“No amount of apologies could ever make it up to you. Not from me. Not from the damn world itself. I don’t… I don’t know how you do it.”
“Lacking the courage to kill myself helped.”
Zurie might be chuckling at her own self-depreciative joke, but Fane is not laughing.
All he can do is frown when he sees just how acceptive she is of her past.
“We’ll deal with the bastards in private as soon as that dog is back. We’re going to make them regret ever even thinking about causing you trouble,” Fane pledges.
“Thank you, Fane. I know that I can count on you. Now then, you went by the kitchen on your way here. Did he start on the muffins yet? It has been far too long since I have had freshly-baked muffins full of large chunks of chocolate.”
“Sometimes I think that chocolate is all you think about.”
“Of course. Chocolate is the only thing that has always been there for me. How could I not love it with all my heart?”
“Well, there’s one way to check if they’re done.”
Fane walks over to the door and opens it.
Immediately, the scent of freshly baked muffins wafts into the room.
Fane turns around to look back at Zurie and sees her wiping away some drool from her chin as she gets up from her chair.
“Let us forget these matters for the moment to go enjoy the muffins,” Zurie says.
“I hope he made enough for both of us. One batch of anything involving chocolate is never enough when you’re involved,” Fane says.
“Oh how I love not being able to gain weight.”
“I still remember Bo go from looking like he had five humans worth of weight in his gut to looking normal overnight. Nothing like becoming a vampire to lose weight.”
“If there is one thing to be thankful for, it is that we will look perfect for all of eternity.”
“What if I don’t want to live for all of eternity? That sounds like it’d get pretty boring.”
“You have already lived for a couple hundred years. Living forever will not be any more difficult. Besides, you are not allowed to die. None of my real family is.”
“Then the same goes for you. If we’re not allowed to die, you’re not, either.”
“Thank you, Fane,” Zurie says with a hand on Fane’s shoulder.
He knew that he would get that response.
He knew that she would acknowledge his words but not accept them.
“Hypocrite,” he calls her out, his tone supporting how bothered he is.
“I know. Now, it is time for muffins,” she says, sounding much happier about the situation than him.